Ben Stokes has given England a new mentality, but bigger challenges await us

Ben Stokes has given England a new mentality, but bigger challenges await us

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As I look back on a summer when Ben Stokes inspired an extraordinary turn in England’s fortunes in Test cricket, I keep going back to a more distant memory. It was 2013 and Stokes and I were in Australia, his first England Lions tour as a player and my first as a batting coach. He was sent home after returning very late one evening or, more precisely, early in the morning.

David Parsons, the England and Wales Cricket Board performance director, and first team manager, Andy Flower, were finished at that time and attended the disciplinary meeting. The feeling in the match was that Stokes didn’t seem to be showing any contrition and when he finished and got up to leave, Flower – who had been silent up to this point – said to him: “You really don’t want to play for England, do you?” sneaking out the door, Stokes replied, “Just look at me, man.”

He made his testing debut later that year and we’ve been following him ever since.

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I also remember the Bristol accident and how Stokes really went through the mill. The aftermath of that incident, and the ensuing court case, were horrendous for him and it took a strong character to overcome it. He returned to the international team for a day trip to New Zealand in 2018, where I was too.

We had a team meeting at the start of the trip and Trevor Bayliss told the group early on that Stokes would like to say something. He said a few words about what it meant to him to be reselected and got quite emotional. I think that to save him from tearing apart Bayliss intervened “OK, Stokesy, that’s enough”.

But Stokes said, “No, I’m not done yet.” Quick as a flash Moeen Ali broke in: “OK, Stokesy, you don’t need to be punchy.” The whole room burst into laughter. I remember that moment and the warmth he showed existed towards him in that group.

He is not, to put it mildly, your typical England Test captain. He is known for drinking and smoking, fighting and misbehaving. He is covered in tattoos and has no private education. I guess we weren’t sure what we would achieve with him – other great all-rounders like Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff have had a hard time meeting dual leadership needs and being the heart of the team in both disciplines – but Stokes is clearly a natural leader.

The handling of some players was particularly striking. He was blunt and firm with Ollie Robinson, but it was done in terms of praising the bowler’s potential and skill, leaving him with no doubts about the physical requirements of international cricket, and inspired immediate improvement. He welcomed Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad back into the fold, excited them about the future and accepted them into a new mindset.

Jonny Bairstow’s excellence during the summer is largely due to the environment that Stokes created, which allowed him to enter the middle order to be aggressive, it being understood that if he gets it wrong the direction is completely behind him.

Younger players like Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley see a captain who has been through the ups and downs of international sport and who shows great empathy for the challenges they face as young players. It’s evident when I talked to players about how much they would, to use a sports cliché, run through a brick wall for him.

Zak Crawley (left) and Ollie Pope celebrate third test victories against South Africa

Zak Crawley (left) and Ollie Pope celebrate third test victories against South Africa. Photograph: Gareth Copley / Getty Images

The other part of a captain’s job is on the pitch and in terms of reading the ebb and flow of games, the timing of bowling changes and the nuances of on-court placements, it seems that most things are going well. As a bowler he managed his workload brilliantly and still made a big impact.

He proved to have a very good feel for things and it was noteworthy that on occasions when things weren’t going like England – for example, in Edgbaston against a nice Indian side, where England suffered a big advantage in the first inning – the head was held high.

It doesn’t have everything right. I saw him in Durham at the beginning of the season and he told me that his players would play with the freedom he wanted only if he, as a leader, walked. As a hitter he certainly did, but with mixed results.

At Old Trafford, he produced an inning of great class and character when the team needed it and the pressure was high, but too often his chivalrous approach meant he relented his wicket too easily. In Edgbaston he was left in extra cover, left half-finished and then finally captured; at the Oval he hit a skier, got away with it, and then hit the weakest paw you’ve ever seen, he got caught out and walked away like he wasn’t even bothered.

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Under the circumstances, it would be crude to be too critical, but he is such a good player that we expect the highest standards. As captain, some of his innings not only failed to set the right example, but set a bad example for the group.

There are bigger challenges coming up, not least a series of Ashes next summer. The opponents England have beaten in recent months included an endangered New Zealand and South African team with the weakest batting lineup I have ever seen from a major nation.

Of their first eight batters at the Oval, only the captain, Dean Elgar, had played more than 10 tests. This was partly due to the injury but it must be a real concern for South Africa, particularly as they don’t have much Test cricket in the next few years and it makes sense to the production line that not long ago produced Graeme Smith, Herschelle Gibbs , Hashim Amla and Jonty Rhodes have dried up. Worse still, he feels there is not just a loss of talent in their test team, but a loss of interest in it.

Thanks to Stokes and his fun and improving side, the danger of England suffering that fate does not seem imminent.

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